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Obama U: What Graduation Speeches Say About The President

This weekend, President Obama will give a speech that very likely won't be about the controversies of the moment.

Every year, a few schools get the president of the United States as their commencement speaker. And this Sunday, at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Obama will get an opportunity to take a step back and describe the big picture.

The graduation speeches that the president gives almost seem to be his real State of the Union addresses. An official State of the Union speech reads like an annual to-do list. But in commencement speeches, Obama talks about where the country stands and where it's going.

And his assessment has changed over the past four years.

Here's what he said at Arizona State in 2009:

"We gather here tonight in times of extraordinary difficulty, for the nation and for the world. The economy remains in the midst of a historic recession, the worst we've seen since the Great Depression."

Compare that with Ohio State earlier this month:

"Where we're going should give you hope. Because while things are still hard for a lot of people, you have every reason to believe that your future is bright. You're graduating into an economy and a job market that is steadily healing."

Here's what he said at the Naval Academy in 2009:

"In an era when too few citizens answer the call to service, to community or to country, these Americans choose to serve. They did so in a time of war, knowing they might be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice."

And, in contrast, at the Air Force Academy in 2012:

"Today, you step forward into a different world. You are the first class in nine years that will graduate into a world where there are no Americans fighting in Iraq."

Since Obama took office, he has delivered 14 commencement addresses. Among them: four at military schools. Two at high schools. One community college. One historically black college. And one women's college.

Sometimes the president road-tests lines in these speeches that come up later in more high-profile venues. Remember this, from Obama's second inaugural?

"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall."

That line echoed for days, tying together historic fights for women's suffrage, civil rights and gay equality.

Turns out, he used the same line eight months earlier in a commencement speech at Barnard College:

"What young generations have done before should give you hope. Young folks who marched and mobilized and stood up and sat in, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, didn't just do it for themselves; they did it for other people."

That speech at a women's school focused on gender equality. And when Obama visited a historically black school, Hampton University, in 2010, the commencement speech focused on African-American struggles:

"I want you to think about Ms. Dorothy Height, a black woman, in 1929, refusing to be denied her dream of a college education. Refusing to be denied her rights."

Many of these speeches are tailored for the specific group of graduates in the crowd. At Miami Dade College, where 90 percent of the students are minorities, in 2011 Obama talked about immigration :

"Whether your ancestors came here on the Mayflower or a slave ship, whether they signed in at Ellis Island or they crossed the Rio Grande — we are one people. We need one another."

While these speeches each have a unique message, there are also universal themes. The idea of unity and community runs through every one of Obama's 14 commencement addresses, including this one at Notre Dame in 2009.

"Unfortunately, finding that common ground — recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a 'single garment of destiny' — is not easy."

This is the brand of politics that Obama has always aspired to, but that he so rarely attains in Washington. A few times every spring, he gets to leave the capital and tell Americans: We're all in this together.

Obama pushes these values of community on a large scale, and a small one.

"You may look in the mirror tonight and you may see somebody who's not really sure what to do with their lives. That's what you may see, but a troubled child might look at you and see a mentor. A homebound senior citizen might see a lifeline."

Sometimes in these speeches when Obama talks about society and citizenship, he argues that government is the vehicle to implement those values. That's a core democratic idea that Obama has always promoted, including at the University of Michigan in 2010.

"When our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us."

In a way, this paean to citizenship, shared responsibility and government has become the central idea of the Obama presidency. It was a major part of his campaign as well.

These ideas are rooted in Obama's work as a community organizer. And today he hopes these ideas will energize people to move lawmakers.

"If they don't represent you the way you want or conduct themselves the way you expect, if they put special interests above your own, you've got to let them know that's not OK. And if they let you down often enough, there's a built-in day in November where you can really let them know it's not OK."

This is a project that Obama has been pushing since long before he reached the White House.

But today, with controversies shining a harsh light on federal bureaucrats from the Internal Revenue Service to the Justice Department, convincing these young Americans they should trust their government may be a harder sell than at any time in the past four years.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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